Lioness | Bezos Wants to Create a Better Future in Space. His Company Blue Origin Is Stuck in a Toxic Past.

We are a group of 21 former and current employees of Blue Origin. Many of us have spent our careers dreaming of helping to launch a crewed rocket into space and seeing it safely touch back down on Earth. But when Jeff Bezos flew to space this July, we did not share his elation. Instead, many of us watched with an overwhelming sense of unease. Some of us couldn’t bear to watch at all.

Blue Origin’s mission statement features prominently on its website, and it’s a lofty one: “enabling a future where millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth.” All of us joined Blue Origin eager to innovate and to open access to space for the benefit of humanity. We believe exploring the possibilities for human civilization beyond Earth is a necessity. But if this company’s culture and work environment are a template for the future Jeff Bezos envisions, we are headed in a direction that reflects the worst of the world we live in now, and sorely needs to change.

Blue Origin currently has more than 3,600 employees spanning six states and several countries. However, in the company Bezos has created, the workforce dedicated to establishing this future “for all” is mostly male and overwhelmingly white. One-hundred percent of the senior technical and program leaders are men.

Workforce gender gaps are common in the space industry, but at Blue Origin they also manifest in a particular brand of sexism. Numerous senior leaders have been known to be consistently inappropriate with women. One senior executive in CEO Bob Smith’s loyal inner circle was reported multiple times to Human Resources for sexual harassment. Even so, Smith personally made him a member of the hiring committee for filling a senior HR role in 2019.

Another former executive frequently treated women in a condescending and demeaning manner, calling them “baby girl,” “baby doll,” or “sweetheart” and inquiring about their dating lives. His inappropriate behavior was so well known that some women at the company took to warning new female hires to stay away from him, all while he was in charge of recruiting employees. It appeared to many of us that he was protected by his close personal relationship with Bezos—it took him physically groping a female subordinate for him to finally be let go.

Additionally, a former NASA astronaut and Blue Origin senior leader once instructed a group of women with whom he was collaborating: “You should ask my opinion because I am a man.” We found many company leaders to be unapproachable and showing clear bias against women. Concerns related to flying New Shepard were consistently shut down, and women were demeaned for raising them. When one man was let go for poor performance, he was allowed to leave with dignity, even a going-away party. Yet when a woman leader who had significantly improved her department’s performance was let go, she was ordered to leave immediately, with security hovering until she exited the building five minutes later.

What are the blind spots of an organization whose stated mission is to enable humanity’s better future, yet is rife with sexism? Blue Origin’s flaws extend further, unfortunately. The company proclaims it will build a better world because we’re well on our way to ruining this one, yet none of us has seen Blue Origin establish any concrete plans to become carbon neutral or significantly reduce its large environmental footprint.

Jeff Bezos has made splashy announcements and donations to climate justice groups, but “benefiting Earth” starts in one’s own backyard. In our experience, environmental concerns have never been a priority at Blue Origin. Time and again we saw new capabilities added to the Kent factory, but not until the machinery showed up did the company begin to consider the environmental impact, including whether a permit was needed to manage the waste products.

For years employees have raised environmental concerns at company town halls, but these have been largely left unaddressed. The company headquarters that opened in 2020 is not a LEED-certified building and was built on wetlands that were drained for construction. Eventually the surrounding roads had to be elevated to mitigate the severe flooding that ensued. We did not see sustainability, climate change, or climate justice influencing Blue Origin’s decision-making process or company culture.

That culture has also taken a toll on the mental health of many of the people who make Blue Origin’s operations possible. Memos from senior leadership reveal a desire to push employees to their limits, stating that the company needs to “get more out of our employees” and that the employees should consider it a “privilege to be a part of history.” One directive held out SpaceX as a model, in that “burnout was part of their labor strategy.” Former and current employees have had experiences they could only describe as dehumanizing, and are terrified of the potential consequences for speaking out against the wealthiest man on the planet. Others have experienced periods of suicidal thoughts after having their passion for space manipulated in such a toxic environment. One senior program leader with decades in the aerospace and defense industry said working at Blue Origin was the worst experience of her life.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.